Notes on Deren's Haitian Footage.
© Moira Sullivan, 1998, updated 2017.

See also "Maya Deren's Ethnographic Representation of Ritual and Myth in Haiti", Moira Sullivan, in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, Bill Nichols, editor, 2001.

Picture shot by Maya Deren in Haiti ca 1950, courtesy of Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections


The Haitian footage, is being digitalized in Zurich: 18,000 ft shot by Maya Deren in Haiti from 1947-1954. That may seem like a good thing , but it depends on if the private museum in Zurich will respect the order of the films that Deren shot. It certainly did not happen in the posthumous film made by Teiji and Cherel Ito, who cut into the print and destroyed this order. Why digitalization - why not conversion of the 16mm film to 35mm? One inaccuracy can already by noted in the description of the ongoing project in Zurich - the footage is called "rushes", and that is not what this Deren's footage is. Rushes are printed every day - they are 'rushed' to be viewed. Raw footage is not, and that is what Deren kept in a fireproof box in her closet. It has deteriorated and was not properly archived at Anthology Film Archives. It was acquired in 1972 from the New York Filmmakers Co-op. Just in time for the centennial anniversary of her birth, the footage is supposed to be available for viewing in 2017.

Maya Deren's original footage of 18,000 feet was shot in Haiti during trips in 1947, 1949 and 1954. It is stored at Anthology Film Archives in New City and was occasionally featured in their film program. Parts 1-4 and 7 were shot in December 1947 and 1949. Parts 5 and 6 were shot in 1954. It was possible to request that the footage be projected at a fee ( as I did ). It is now being "digitally restored" and cannot be viewed ( as of January 2017 ). Additionally, all of Deren's films are archived here including outtakes from her films and some unfinished work.The Haiku project, Medusa and parts from Witches Cradle with Marcel Duchamp.

The documentary film Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti by Teiji and Cherel Ito is an assembled film of some of the best parts of the footage with sound added. (Parts are "interpretations" - not actual text extracts - from Deren's monograph Divine Horsemen.) The film's title is the title of her monograph. It should be understand, however, that this is the Ito's editorial work since Deren insisted that a film was both a product of the camera and editing. Therefore, the Ito collaboration is a 'fiction' of the material. Donald Cosentino, ed. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, UCLA Fowler Museum 1995 refers to Deren's 'surrealistic editing', an observation which can be attributed to the Ito assemblage. It should be noted also that Maya Deren abandoned all her artistic conceptions after arriving in Haiti to make a film about Vodou. (See the introduction to her monograph Divine Horsemen). She also did not consider herself a "surrealist" although this label is frequently and inaccurately applied to her work.

Divine Horsemen, the Living Gods of Haiti is a good introduction to Deren's footage.

History of Anthology Film Archives Acquisition of Deren's footage
In 1972, Anthology Film Archives received from Grove Press five cartons of films in various canisters of the work of Maya Deren in Haiti owned by Barney Rossett. A rudimentary description of the contents was as follows: "The entire set of Haitian reels is markedly similar and repetitious in content with few exceptions. For the most part the action involves Haitian people involved in Voudoun ritual and dancing. This includes mystical drawings made on the ground, the oft-repeated sacrifice of chickens or cocks and small goats, accompanied by seated drummers. There are several instances of apparent religious hysteria and about 400 feet of Mardi Gras parade." (notes by Anthology Film Archives, Linda Patton, 1972)

The physical condition of the footage was in a state of deterioration with shrinkage and darkness and fading of the tonal quality due to aging. Some of the splices were old and need of repair. Anthology Film Archives restored the prints through reprinting and correction of the original splices.

The Making of the Ito Compilation Documentary

In 1973, Cherel Winnett and Teiji Ito requested to edit Deren's footage.Teiji Ito, (Maya Derens husband at the time of her death), was sound editor who had recorded music in Haiti which was to be used in the film. Cherel Winett, film editor, who had studied film at the San Francisco Art Institute made the documentary "Blueberry Summer". According to Anthology Film Arhives curator Jonas Mekas, they were advised not to work with the the footage because of its delicacy and age which would jeopardize the only existing material on Deren's work in Haiti. In an application for funding to edit Deren's footage in 1973, Mekas supervised the intended project, coordinated by "Mr. Teiji Ito and Ms. Cherel Winnett". One result of the completed project unfortunately is that some of the original footage can not be viewed in the original sequence as it was cut out of the material.
According to the budget appropriation, there was 18,000 feet of negative and positive (re)print. Half of the footage was requested to be optically treated with sound transfer and editing.

Parts of the introduction to Divine Horsemen were quoted including Deren's reference that the plan for a film was somewhere among her belongings and her footage was kept in "a fire-proof box in her closet". One of the most frustrating setbacks of Deren's career was her failure to release the footage and she tried countless times to have it accepted for anthropological use--and denied because she was an outsider to the field. Ironically, Divine Horsemen is still considered a classic study of Haitian Voudoun.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, taken from the title of Deren's monograph, was released in 1977.

Editorial details

The Ito compilation which claims to contain footage from 1947 to 1951 also includes material from 1954 (ceremonies, dance performances by locals, documentation of Voudoun altars, carnivals and festivals). There is some synchronization of sound to image such as birds chirping or their wings fluttering but the predominant focus is on the music of the ceremonies--in particular ceremonie caille (described below by Deren). The narrators were John Genke with Joan Pape reading a short description of the Agwe ceremony. Focus is on the different loa, or gods and goddesses in Voudoun ceremony including Legba, Ogun, Ghede, Erzulie, Damballah and Azacca and Agwe--with animation of the particular vevers.

Editorial inconsistencies with Deren's original material are the insertion of animation of the loa Damballah after the closeup of an individual under possession lasting through a minute of material from the Agwe ceremony; a long shot of a La-place (assistant) to the houngan (priest) Isnard in 1947 cracking a whip introducing the Boeuf Azacca ceremony in 1949; and footage from 1954 showing the Haitian boy Jacques doing the juba intercut with Mardi Gras material. Some use of corresponding movement is used and edited side by side such as Jacques and the baton twirlers and the pelvic movement of a woman possessed by Ghede with the pelvic movements of baton twirlers at Mardi-Gras. The films ends with a freeze frame of Gh├ęde at the Mardi Gras (Cosentino noted this edit, see above). All postproduction by the Ito's.

Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections, Home of the Maya Deren Collection

Marie Deren, Maya's mother, bequeathed her deceased daughter's papers , photographs and sound recordings to Boston University Mugar Library Special Collections, which is the largest center for Deren researchers in the world. One interesting document found there is Deren's Guide to Haiti Film Catalogue, a shot description of 5400 ft of her best footage from Haiti. This inventory is the best record for understanding her footage. The film was divided into seventeen sections. The first eight reels were for the eight day ceremonie caille filmed in 1947; the next four reels were sections she refilmed of the ceremony in 1949; the last five reels were dance festivals and ceremonies, dates between 1949 and 1954.



Reel 1 Ceremonies, Yam, Legba and House

Reel 2 Ceremonies Ogoun and part of Azacca

Reel 3 Ceremonies Azacca continued

Reel 4 Ceremonies Azacca continued

Reel 5 Ceremonies Ghede

Reel 6 Filming ceremony

Reel 7 Filming ceremony

Reel 8 Filming ceremony

Reels IX through XII are marked from 1949

Reel 9 Aguet

Reel 10 Ghede

Reel 11 Dancing at Isnards, Dancing at House

Reel 12 Congo Dancing

Reels XIII through XVII are different aspects of Haitian culture/and or dance

Reel 13 Mardi Gras [footage of the festival and parade]

Reel 14 Rara [footage of Haitian dance festival in spring]

Reel 15 Walking [a pre-planned sequence of Haitian women walking to market]

Reel 16 Titon dancing-- Petro, Juba, Martinique [pre-planned sequence of Haitian dances]

Reel 17 Boeuf Azacca [part of a ceremony to the loa]









A description of the eight-day ceremony ceremonie caille in Divine Horsemen provides a background to this footage: "Sunday: Action de Grace; Monday Service for les Marassa [Divine twins] and les Morts (the collective dead]; in the evening, the coucher yam [ritual where yams are laid to sleep at night],late afternoon and evening,feasting of Legba, Loco, Ayizan, Damballah, Ayida, Erzulie and Agwe; and their escorts (these loa are considered to be on very good terms and amenable to being served together);Wednesday: Ogoun with a dance in the evening in his honor; Thursday: Azacca, or Erzulie, or perhaps one of the other loa; Thursday: Azacca, or Erzulie, or perhaps one of the other loa especially important to the hounfor; Friday: Ghede; Saturday, the Petro loa; Sunday: often a bapteme[baptism], followed by a reception; Monday: a personal loa perhaps a work loa such as Mounanchou. If possible, each loa is served on the day of the week sacred to him. The procedure,usually,is to perform the individual ceremony either in the mid-morning or in the late afternoon, while the rest of the day is devoted to the preparation of food,and in the evening, there is generally a "danse de rejuissance" in honor of the loa feasted that day. (Divine Horsemen, p. 212.)



Azacca =loa of agriculture

Ghede =loa of the Dead

Erzulie =loa of love

Agwe =loa of sea

Legba = loa of the crossroads

Damballah =ancient serpent loa

Ogoun = loa of war

Damballah and Ayida= supreme parents

Loco and Ayizan =priestly parents

Petro loa = nanchon (tribe) of loa of American origin

Rada loa = nanchon of loa of Dahomean origin


CBS Odyssey 303 B 305 306 Includes several ceremonies, including Agwe.

#306 600 ft 16mm silent . From 400 ft can labeled "Odyssey". Ceremony around poteau mitan.

[MD] A2978 Haiti Voudoun. Reel 1 of 2. Reel 2 of 2. A2977. Chicken and goat. 400'cans labeled CBS Odyssey. Chicken and goat offering to loa. Tuesday-Goats.

#305 outs 300 ft.

#303 A+B 300 ft [MD]: Titon, Juba, Martinique, Titon XV, XVII Azacca Boeuf.

#303B Walking. From XVI Walking.

PT. I - IV Haiti # 304 (Each 4325 ft=17.300 ft.) Ceremonie caille. Isnard Monday Yam and Legba, PM Agassou. Tuesday Maison. Wednesday Ogoun and Azacca. Agwe;--barque d'Agwe [raft of offerings to Agwé set to sea] ceremony on boat. Ghede, Congo ceremony.

PT V Haiti # 300 1825 ft Yam and Ghede, Mardi Gras.

PT VI Haiti #300 1825 ft., Haiti 1954 [MD]: Joe & Isnard. Ceremony, bull, Ghede,Mardi Gras, Indoor altar, outside drawing of vever. Jacques doing juba, home of Haitian family.

Part VII #302 1825 ft. Joe and Isnard [MD] :XIII, XIV Rada , XII-XIX Mardi Gras, XVI Walking.